Patrick Aleph, lead singer of punk band Can Can, has started an oh-so-needed movement in the Jewish community called Punk Torah . Punk Torah is not necessarily about music, Patrick explains, but it is about rebelling — rebuilding and reapproaching the way Judaism is being done. “If I punk the Torah, it’s not that I’m punking a holy book. It’s that I’m punking a certain way of looking at the book which is inflexible and what drives people away from it,” he said.
Patrick considers himself an observant Jew, but also lives what he believes to be a very progressive life. He gets asked often how he balances being in a punk band with Judaism. His says he doesn’t have to because it’s exactly the same. A recent song he wrote, “Black Rainbow,” describes a parallel between what it’s like to beg a woman into bed and what it’s like to beg G-d to come into your heart. He also wrote a song on his last album, Pretty Motion, about what it’s like being a Jew living in the Bible Belt.
A CNN piece, “‘New Jews’ stake claim to faith, culture,” quoted Patrick recently: "When I’m on stage screaming, hitting my face with a microphone and pouring beer on my head, at least I’m singing about the Torah.” This new wave of young, highly spiritual and proud Jews have taken it upon themselves to find a new approach to expressing their faith, and Patrick is leading the way.
Busted Halo: What are your thoughts on the ‘New Jew’ movement? What role does Punk Torah play? And is it all really so new considering, as you’ve mentioned, the rabbis who wrote the midrash [book of Biblical interpretations] were artists and musicians expressing Judaism in a radical way?
Patrick Aleph: I think that in contemporary Western society, New Jew, as far as a spiritual direction, is brand new. Jews are sort of behind the curve when it comes to talking about G-d. We love to talk about Israel. We love to talk about Holocaust, about culture. We don’t like talking about G-d.
It bothers me, and this is a reason why I started Punk Torah. Jews for some reason like to polarize themselves. You are either a cultural Jew or you’re a frum [religious]. For me, and for most people I know, there is some sort of in between the two. We like that really wicked black and white but that is not how the Torah works. The people who are in the Torah were not always good people, not always righteous people; did not always do what G-d wanted them to do.
Punk Torah helps people understand that there is a spiritual voice that is within people and they should express it; they should feel good about it. And it doesn’t have to be religious necessarily. Just because some people don’t believe in G-d, or don’t feel G-d when they are in a synagogue, doesn’t mean that G-d’s presence is not in their life in some way.
BH: Do you feel that the Jewish population, because of the black and whiteness of G-d you mentioned, have a harder time expressing themselves through G-d compared to other religions?
PA: Absolutely. Rabbi Cheryl Kushner wrote something really good about that. She said the difference between Jews and Christians is that Christians are a club. A club gets together because you have a shared idea. Jews are a family. Families seldom have the same ideas on everything. That goes back again to cultural Judaism and Religious Judaism. My argument is that there is a lot of culture in religious Judaism, and a lot of religion in cultural Judaism. So let’s just call it Judaism. My bias, I want to help create a spiritual voice for the “New Jew.”
BH: What would that look like?
PA: Punk Torah isn’t just Punk Torah. We have a website called Indie Yeshiva. We’ve got lots of other projects we’re working on. What I’d like to see these little projects do — these micro-sites — is create a voice for the contemporary Jew who is outside the synagogue, outside authority, based on people creating their own spiritual identities.
If you look at most spiritual/religious websites you look at Aish, Chabad, OU — all the reform, reconstructive, whatever — it’s all biased. People don’t particularly fit into those boxes. You have people who keep kosher like me, but I have no problem to finish cooking after candle lighting. People pick and choose what works for them, what they find relevant. By giving a forum for those people to come out, for lack of a better word, from their Jewish shell and say, “Hey I don’t go to synagogue but I light Shabbos candles,’ or, ‘I wear a yarmulke but I eat cheeseburgers’ — to be able to validate that and say that there is something holy within that — we really need to reclaim the idea of righteousness as something all people can express.
My choice of using punk is because I come from a punk rock background. It’s what I like to do for fun. Because I know holiness and godliness exist in everything, there is a holy and godly place for punk rock. Matthue Roth talked about how Abraham and Sarah were the first punk rock couple. For me, I couldn’t not have music in my life. That would never ever work for me. And luckily I belong to a tradition that not only says that that’s OK, but has a history doing that.
BH: Wait, Abraham and Sarah the first punk rock couple? How is that?
PA: From a midrash [interpretation] standpoint, you have people who are running from town to town. They’re smashing idols. You’ve got this crazy three-way thing going on with Hadar… Then Sarah gets all jealous. You have this sort of misfit couple, very Jerry Springer, can’t get it together. And it’s not denigrating to say that.
By calling it out, I think we liberate the scripture. It’s more real. How many times have people been in relationships where they thought, OK I need to let this person fly away and they’ll come back to me. And then that person flies away into someone else’s arms and they get pissed. That’s such a human thing. If we can, move the characters in the Torah outside their caricature and bring them into now. Let’s just call it what it is and find the holiness in that as opposed to trying to construct the holiness based on a preconceived notion of what it is.